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Iraq's Unruly Neighbors

Prepared by: Michael Moran
January 12, 2007

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With so much riding on the Bush administration’s tactical shifts in Iraq, and with so little by way of domestic political support, naturally the military and political impact of the “surge” in troop levels has captivated the media. Yet Bush’s Wednesday evening speech included explicit threats directed at Iran and Syria, accusing them of “allowing terrorists and insurgents to use their territory” and vowing to “destroy the networks providing advanced weaponry and training to our enemies in Iraq.” And, he added for good measure: “I recently ordered the deployment of an additional carrier-strike group to the region.” The carrier Stennis and its battle group joins the USS Eisenhower and its escorts in the Arabian Sea by early February.

The deployment may or may not imply imminent action against Iran or Syria, which both denounced the new plan (AP). But in a raid in the Kurdish city of Irbil on Thursday, U.S. troops seized six Iranians (BBC) from a building Tehran claims to be its local consulate, suggesting a new, more aggressive approach. The president’s words on Iran and Syria remain deliberately ambiguous. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, during her testy appearance Thursday before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, insisted the U.S. would rule out nothing (BosGlobe) with regard to the two nations.

Nonetheless, the bellicose words appear to foreclose on independent recommendations that Iran and Syria be engaged diplomatically. That idea, promoted most recently by the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, rests on the hope that talks and incentives could convert these important regional players into constructive partners, at least in regard to the common interest of stabilizing Iraq.  It’s an idea that was firmly embraced by new Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates when he cochaired a CFR Independent Task Force on Iran in 2004. CFR President Richard N. Haass reiterated it this summer in a CFR.org interview.

Despite some UN Security Council action, efforts to curb Iran and Syria through multilateral pressure have been limited, with Tehran defying demands that it desist from enriching uranium, and Syria continuing to stymie the investigation (Daily Star) into its role in the death of former Lebanese President Rafik Hariri. A more unilateral approach now looms. Earlier this week, Washington imposed sanctions (FT) on an Iranian bank.

Yet as powerful as U.S. carrier battle groups may be, experts fear no limited options truly exist when it comes to striking Iran or its putative nuclear arms program. Unlike Serbia or even Saddam’s Iraq—recent recipients of air strikes and the Tomahawk missile approach to such problems—Iran possesses the means to strike back. Others warn Iran has grown into a political and regional military force too powerful to be isolated. Suggestions to the contrary, writes CFR Senior Fellow Ray Takeyh in his new book, Hidden Iran, “are grounded in emotion, ideology, or wishful thinking.”

A wide range of experts at a day-long symposium on Iran last spring agreed with the assertions of Takeyh and CFR Senior Fellow Steven Simon, a terrorism expert and former senior director for transnational threats at the National Security Council: “The moment the first U.S. warheads detonate over an Iranian nuclear installation, the United States will be at war (WashPost) with the Islamic Republic."

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